Nurturing Nature

by Érika Yuri Kawashima Utumi and Hardyal Sharma



Érika Yuri Kawashima Utumi

Érika Yuri Kawashima Utumi is coordinator of environmental education at SGI-Brazil’s Amazon Ecological Conservation Center (CEPEAM) in Manaus, Brazil. CEPEAM was founded in 1992 to promote environmental sustainability in line with the vision of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda. As well as promoting environmental education, the center undertakes conservation, regeneration and sustainable forestry projects with a focus on improving the quality of life of local people.

Hardyal Sharma

Hardyal Sharma is currently the head of the Soka Bodhi Tree Garden Committee, which was established by Bharat Soka Gakkai (SGI-India) in September 1993. Some 3,500 trees of an envisioned 10,000-tree forest have been planted in the garden, which serves as a venue for Buddhist study and cultural activities.

How did you get into your field of work?

Érika: I studied biology because it was my favorite subject in high school. I’ve always been concerned about environmental issues, and SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has often written about the importance of our relationship to the natural environment. I was inspired by the activities of the Amazon Ecological Conservation Center (CEPEAM) and got involved as a volunteer. My goal is to use my professional skills to help make a difference and contribute to society in a significant way.

The Soka Bodhi Tree Garden in India The Soka Bodhi Tree Garden [© BSG]

Hardyal: While he was visiting India in 1992, President Ikeda announced to the SGI-India members that he would like to create a garden—a place that could serve as a hub for peace-related activities. I had no experience working in gardens; I was a schoolteacher. However, owing to the fact that I had a more flexible work schedule than others, I was asked to help find land for the garden. We secured 90 acres of consolidated land, and the garden was established.

Can you describe a typical workday?

Érika: There is no fixed work routine; we plan our educational activities according to requests we receive. Recently, we’ve welcomed a greater number of visiting students at CEPEAM. During these visits, we follow an original educational program that involves taking the students around the center’s grounds and teaching them about key environmental issues, our projects and the Amazon ecosystem.

Hardyal: As the head of the Soka Bodhi Tree Garden Committee, I see my role as connecting people and promoting human relations within the community. I meet with the staff, the horticulturalist and the landscape architect at the garden and listen to their needs, in addition to the villagers from whom we purchased the land.

How does your work contribute to protecting the environment? Are there any specific initiatives you are undertaking?

Hardyal: There are many factories that are being built in the suburbs of New Delhi, with the result that pollution levels are rising. The Soka Bodhi Tree Garden, which is located on the outskirts of New Delhi, is helping preserve nature and provide clean air. Currently, we have approximately 170 acres of land. Every year we grow crops, such as mustard seed and wheat, and donate them to the villagers who then sell them for profit. The proceeds are used to improve facilities within the community, for example, by building a school for girls and purchasing household goods for the elderly.

Érika holding a sapling

Érika: We contribute to environmental protection through conservation activities carried out in conjunction with the wider community and through our ongoing projects such as our efforts to restore degraded areas and provide a refuge for wild flora and fauna. Through these projects, we promote the humanistic ideals of valuing each and every person and of using dialogue to establish relationships that, when based on a vision for the common good, ensure quality of life for future generations.

What is the most enjoyable part of your job, and what are some of the most challenging parts?

Hardyal: Seeing the growth of the bodhi trees gives me great joy. I also love interacting with the staff at the garden and the local villagers. Every year the villagers come to the garden bearing letters of appreciation, and that’s very moving.

In the beginning, when we bought the land for the garden, there were many difficulties. We had wild cows known as nilgai that ate the small plants and, in addition, all the wells on the land were exhausted and dry. With the help of local experts, coupled with perseverance, we overcame all these hurdles. When we finally found water on the land, we all danced with joy!

Érika: The most enjoyable part of my job is being able to share the knowledge I’ve acquired through my professional training, while at the same time interacting with people from various backgrounds and age-groups. I strive to become a better, more humanistic person through the life lessons I gain from these people. In this way, I can contribute with concrete actions—however small they may seem when compared to the current scale of the environmental issues we face—that will be a positive force and will bear fruit in the years to come.

related article Bringing Wonder into the Classroom Bringing Wonder into the Classroom by  Kenichi Kanba,  Japan Inspired by how his Buddhist practice enabled him to transform his environment, elementary school teacher Kenichi Kanba introduces children to the wonders of the natural world. How has your Buddhist practice inspired your approach to work?

Érika: The Buddhist principle of esho funi directly applies to my profession since it refers to the intimate relationship between a person and the environment, which, despite being two phenomena, are considered one in their fundamental essence. Through this, I realize how important it is to use our wisdom when utilizing nature’s resources, based on respect for the dignity of life. I can say this is the fundamental principle that guides my actions as a biologist, always seeking harmony through sustainable development and practical actions to promote environmental protection, social justice and economic efficiency.

Hardyal: I always remember President Ikeda’s strong determination to establish the garden. I really believe it was a gift of compassion. It all started when he first visited India in 1979. The local SGI members, who numbered 40 at the time, gave him a bundle of dried bodhi tree leaves each mounted on a piece of paper. It was under the bodhi tree that Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment. And then in February 1992, during his second visit to India, President Ikeda proposed the idea of creating the Soka Bodhi Tree Garden. Everyone who comes to the garden can feel its beautiful harmony, with its many trees and birds, such as ducks, geese and peacocks. I think this is because it was created with the spirit of “many in body, one in mind,” or unity in diversity.

What do you think is the most important message that nature can convey to people?

related article “I Am Master of My Mind”: Unleashing the Power of Transformation in Prisons “I Am Master of My Mind”: Unleashing the Power of Transformation in Prisons by  Sabra Williams,  USA Sabra Williams is a Soka Gakkai member and a successful film and television actor, whose career includes credits in Mission Impossible III and recurring roles in ABC’s Injustice and CBS’s Three Rivers. After making her mark as an actress and TV presenter in the UK, Sabra moved to the US in 2002, where she created the Actors’ Gang Prison Project. Launched in 2006, the project employs highly physical theatrical techniques based on the emotive 16th-century Italian “people’s theater” culture of commedia dell’arte. The work has proved transformative for inmates of the California prison system and has significantly reduced recidivism rates. Sabra was recently honored as a Champion of Change by the White House. Érika: Forests teach us the infinite possibilities of life; they offer essential resources and exist for the benefit of all types of organisms. What we can take from this is that, just like human life, the life of the forest has profound value and great potential, and if we commit to its existence, we are also committing to ourselves.

Hardyal: Our garden currently has 3,500 bodhi trees, which have all grown very tall now. We are aiming for 10,000 trees by 2030, which will be the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Soka Gakkai. In addition to the bodhi trees, there are ornamental and fruit trees and flowers, and many birds are attracted to these plants. People recognize and admire our garden for its contribution to the environment, and in that sense the Soka Bodhi Tree Garden is a symbol of peace and, I believe, a ray of hope.

Courtesy January 2015 issue of the SGI Quarterly.

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